The Climb

‘I think they’ve made a mistake’ said Wendy Smith, mother of Marcus, Daniel and Nick ‘they’ve got you down as a vet’.

‘I am, I’m 42’, I replied.

She looked a little surprised then ruined it all by saying ‘yeah I suppose vets start at 40 don’t they?’

I took it as a compliment nonetheless and with that slight boost to my ego I took the start line and by the time I’d finished at the top of the hill I felt all of the 42 years 1 month and 5 weeks that I’d been on the planet. Before the start I’d made a point of talking to fellow competitors and club members as much to forget about what I was about to do as anything. Bryan Bevis and Andrew Howe were taking to their tandem and seemed relaxed – how they get that machine up the hill at all is staggering. They more than anything sum up what this event is all about, the enthusiasm of youth and the benefit of experience, where did that leave me as I possessed neither! I talked to Ian Hutchinson as he warmed up on his trainer just outside the café, he didn’t seem too confident but as always he would put in a good performance. John Kelly and perennial organiser Bill Leaver seemed in good spirits as well they might as they were at the top of the hill and would stay there for the duration. Steve Turner looked equally happy to be marshalling at the left hand turn near the cattle grid, I waved as I carried on downwards. Meanwhile at the bottom of the hill Dave Kirton had taken the unusual decision to set his trainer up near a dead rabbit, he offered no explanation for this so focused as he was on breaking 8 minutes, which he did by the way.

The view that everyone else was enjoying from the top
The view that everyone else was enjoying from the top

They were calling my minute man to the line, not long now. Here’s a confession for you, I’m a hill climb virgin, yes that’s right I’m glad that’s out in the open, but even so I was surprised how nervous I felt. It’s just another time trial I told myself, except it wasn’t was it? I’ve always considered my relative strength to be climbing as opposed to riding on the flat, or downhill. Trouble was it just dawned on me that most of the people doing this would too, otherwise why do it? This is no event to enter casually and so to some extent a selection is already made before the start line is taken. I’d agreed some modest goals with myself, under nine minutes minimum, 8.40 ideally, a vet placing hopefully. I’d done two training runs around four weeks previous then deliberately kept off the hill so I wouldn’t remember every awful and painful bit of it; well that was the theory anyway. Those two runs took me nine minutes exactly and 9.10 but when I saw where the finish line was when I descended the hill I realised that I had timed myself to a point a bit further up the road, ‘got to be worth 10 seconds’ I thought, also no tools, tubes or water bottle and with fresh legs, maybe I could do 8.30?

30 seconds to go and I’m clipping in while ably supported by Chris Smith, I tell him that I removed the bottle cage and mini pump the night before to save weight, I’m sure he sensed my nervousness. The time keeper says 15. Between my last run up Carlton Bank in early September and now, I’d ridden up a lot of hills, some long, some steep but none as hard. Wilton Bank near to my home has been the most visited and I feel as though I know all of its quarter mile 20% slopes intimately, how I hate that hill. Carlton Bank takes residence in a darker place in my psyche though as it’s the only hill that has defeated me. Last year I decided to see how quickly I could go up it and I underestimated it, set off too quickly and just after the left hand turn after the cattle grid I ran out of gas and had to turn round. No one was there to see it but me and I’ve ridden up it several times since but I’ve yet to exorcise that painful and intimidating experience fully from my memory.

Ten seconds, 5,4,3,2,1 a generous push from Mr Smith and I’m off. I’ve started in the middle sprocket of nine and bearing in mind my previous humiliation on the hill I’m taking the first part easy, I’m not going to look at the computer till I pass Steve Turner on the corner. One thing I had noticed on the ride down to the start was the people dotted all over the place, some going up, some going down, others looking for the best vantage point to watch us suffer. I shouldn’t have been surprised as it was a beautiful cloudless day and I’ve watched the hill climb myself in the past, so I knew that it attracted a good crowd, not exactly Alpe D’Huez or Mount Ventoux but by British cycling standards pretty good, and as such there was a buzz on the hill. Question is will they inspire me or will I buckle under the pressure? I’m hoping that the Coast to Coast ride from 11 days earlier and the 50 in 4 race, sorry tourist trial, will have left me with good legs but as Sean Kelly would have said if he’d been commentating ‘it’s difficult to say’ and so it was as I’d just set off.

The pain is beginning to set in!
The pain is beginning to set in!

Bryan and Andrew will have finished on the tandem by now I thought, and what’s more Andrew will be riding back down the hill to compete as an individual too, does he love this hill!? The road suddenly rises, one of its many infernal ramps, and I click down a gear, only three below this one, but I’m feeling good, so far. Why didn’t I do this in my twenties when I had lungs? At the end of August during a club run I suggested going up Scarth Nick and after a few groans everyone complied, but soon it was me that was groaning as Harry Tanfield and Richard Lilleker disappeared ahead round the hairpins. Richard had said earlier that he was doing the hill climb, well that’s that I thought.

The green fence appears on the left, another ramp and another click down, then another, only one to go, then the cattle grid, my minute man is within reach and I close as the road steepens to the corner, I knew he set off too fast. I turn left as Steve offers some encouragement and someone takes a photo, John Main I think, and there it goes another click and my last gear is gone. I look at the computer and it says 4 minutes something, I think it was at 5 minutes something on my training runs but I can’t be sure. When I looked at the start sheet I picked out two names to aim for, Paul Howe and Ian Hutchinson, both Cleveland Wheelers, both vets, Ian normally beats me in the club time trials, Paul does half the time, most of the other names looked too fast, even the ones that were not familiar.

The next ramp and the first of the crowds, what an awful climb why can’t the gradient make its stupid mind up? I pass my minute man and now it’s hurting, someone is stood out in the road yelling at me to try harder, or words to that effect, I don’t know who he is. An easing of the gradient then another little ramp, I recognise Steve Binks and Phil Meadows, I think. My legs, normally my limiting factor, feel okay but my breathing is starting to sound like an ancient pair of bellows. If I was a true competitor I would now be thinking ‘right give it all you’ve got every second, in fact every tenth of a second, counts’. Instead what I’m thinking is ‘there’s that wonderful chequered finishing board, the pain is almost over’. I later find out that Paul Howe has beaten me by point three of a second; surely I could have eked out that bit more couldn’t I? Probably not. I glimpse down at my computer as I pass John Kelly and Norman Bielby on the finish line, 8 minutes 20 seconds or so then I ride on over the hill gulping for oxygen.

Where am I going, ride straight you fool!
Where am I going, ride straight you fool!

After a partial recovery I ride back to join my wife and cheer in the rest of the competitors. She’s stood next to Richard Lilleker’s relatives, he does 7.05, sixth overall and fastest Cleveland Wheeler, I knew he was going to be quick, Richard Meadows wins in 6.20 – he would have caught me on the line for two minutes!

After all the riders have finished Mrs Smith comes past, has she walked all the way up the hill?

‘Did you do a good time?’ she asks

‘Good for me’, I reply.

She smiles ‘That’s the main thing’, she says.

As the winners collect their prizes I notice that they are uniformly thin and mostly young, I’m hardly a heavyweight myself but all of a sudden I feel a bit lardy. Geoff Robinson’s untimely puncture means I get the prize for sixth veteran and Dave Kirton and I agree that we are too old for this, saying that Dave is only 35. Then we talk about entering a tandem next year and having glimpsed a view of the unique trophy for that category we almost convince ourselves that it is a good idea.

That's the way to do it, Richard Meadows takes the honours
That’s the way to do it, Richard Meadows takes the honours
Top three
1st Richard Meadows Velo 29 6.20.7
2nd Tony McKenna Middridge CRT 6.50.7
3rd Chris Leverton Altura 6.56.8
Cleveland Wheelers’ riders
6th Richard Lilleker 7.05.9
14th Jack Thompson 7.37.9
15th Dave Kirton 7.57.9
18th Paul Howe 8.20.6
19th Paul Christon 8.20.9
20th Ian Hutchinson 8.24.2
25th Andrew Howe 10.02.06
26th Vicki Howe 11.17.2
28th Katie Howe 11.37.4
1st Bryan Bevis and Andrew Howe (tandem) 12.22.6

Well done everybody and see you next year, though I’ll probably revert to being a spectator!

Paul Christon – October 2009